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Jewish Refugees on the St.

Louis
By Jessica McBirney
2017

As the Nazi Party came into power and anti-Semitism rose under Adolf Hitler, many Jews sought
refuge in
other countries. In this informational text, Jessica McBirney discusses one specific ship, the St.
Louis, and
the experiences of the Jewish refugees on it who were denied entrance to multiple countries. As
you read,
identify why some nations chose to accept foreign refugees and why others decided to reject
them.

Today we often hear news about the refugee crisis happening in the Middle East. Because of wars
and political unrest in the region, thousands of people have had to flee for their lives by seeking
refuge in countries around the world, including the United States. Whether to accept large numbers
of refugees is a controversial (1) question.

Refugees Flee for Safety


The world dealt with very similar concerns in the late 1930s, when the Nazi regime in Germany
began systematically (2) persecuting Jews and other minority groups. The Nazis, also called the Third
Reich, were led by Adolf Hitler and believed the German race was superior to all others, and that
other races and religions must be killed off. To escape direct threats against their lives, thousands of
Jews began fleeing the country as refugees to find new homes.

The MS St. Louis was one ship that transported Jewish refugees to safer countries. Piloted by
Captain Gustav Schroder, the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, carrying
937 passengers. Almost all the travelers were Jews escaping from the persecution they faced under
Hitler’s Third Reich. The ship was bound for Cuba, and then eventually for the United States.

The journey itself was very pleasant for the passengers, with fancy meals, activities for young people
and some childcare, and religious services on Friday evenings. They enjoyed the trip very much,
especially after facing so much stress and hardship in Germany.

An Unpleasant Welcome
What the passengers did not know about was unstableness of the political climate in Cuba. Shortly
before the ship’s departure, Cuba amended its immigration policies and retroactively(3) invalidated
the refugees’ permission to come to the country. Right-wing Cuban newspapers cautioned the
government against letting in the Jews, whom they believed would take away jobs from native
Cubans who had been hit by the recent economic depression. Many also hated the Jews as an ethnic
group — anti-Semitism was not exclusive to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

On May 27, the St. Louis weighed anchor in Havana, Cuba, where passengers were denied
permission to leave the ship and officially enter Cuba. Soon 29 people were allowed to walk free, but

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the remaining 908 were confined to the ship, since their visas had not been finalized and the Cuban
government refused to do so.

American Hesitation
No one could convince Cuba to accept the refugees, so the St. Louis changed course and headed
for the nearby United States. Even though U.S. newspapers had diligently (4) reported the story of
these passengers to the public, very few people saw any benefit in accepting the refugees. Secretary
of State Cordell Hull advised President Roosevelt not to let them land.

When some of the passengers contacted President Roosevelt directly and begged him to let them
enter the country, he never responded to their plea. A telegram from the U.S. State Department told
them they must “await their turns on the waiting list... for immigration visas.” The U.S. government
and citizens had varying reasons for not making any special arrangements for the ship full of
immigrants cruising up the coast. Immigration policy at the time set numerical quotas for how many
people could come to the U.S. from various parts of the world. By mid-1939, the quota for Germany
had already been met, and the waitlist extended for several years.

Additionally, U.S. citizens shared Cubans’ concerns about new immigrants. The Great Depression left
many Americans jobless, and many worried immigrants would compete for the few jobs that still
existed. Anti-Semitism also ran deep in the United States. Americans sympathized with the plight(5)
of refugees on the St. Louis and other refugee ships, but 83% of citizens favored the strict
immigration rules already in place. President Roosevelt and his administration saw no motivation to
change these rules, so they refused to admit the Jews from the St. Louis.

Eventual Relocation
Captain Schroder pressed on to find new homes for all of his passengers. Canada also declined to
accept anyone from the ship. So Schroder sailed back to Europe, docking in Belgium, and worked
deals
with several countries on the continent. The United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands
all
welcomed hundreds of the refugees.

Unfortunately, during the course of World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, France, and the
Netherlands, so many of the previously safe refugees found themselves in danger all over again.
Using survival statistics for Jews from these European countries during the war, scholars estimate
that, ultimately, 709 of the passengers survived the war, and 227 did not.

FOOTNOTES…

1. Controversial (adjective): giving rise or likely to give rise to public disagreement


2. Systemic (adjective): done or acting according to a fixed plan or system
3. with effect from a date in the past
4. Diligently (adverb): attentive and persistent in doing something
5. Plight (noun): a dangerous, difficult, or otherwise unfortunate situation

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Text-Dependent Questions
Directions: For the following questions, choose the best answer or respond in
complete sentences.
1. PART A: Which of the following identifies the central idea of the text?
A. Cuba and the United States did not accept Jewish refugees because they simply
did not have the economic means to support them.
B. The prejudices and economic fears of several countries led to the deaths of
many Jewish refugees, who tried to escape Nazi Germany.
C. Despite not gaining entry to the United States or Cuba, the Jewish refugees
found security from other countries that were wealthier.
D. Due to the small number of refugees on the St. Louis, relatively few people were
affected by Cuba’s decision to deny them entry.
2. PART B: Which of the following TWO details from the text best supports the answer to
Part A?
A. “To escape direct threats against their lives, thousands of Jews began fleeing the
country as refugees to find new homes.” (Paragraph 2)
B. “The journey itself was very pleasant for the passengers, with fancy meals,
activities for young people and some childcare, and religious services on Friday
evenings.” (Paragraph 4)
C. “Soon 29 people were allowed to walk free, but the remaining 908 were
confined to the ship, since their visas had not been finalized and the Cuban
government refused to do so.” (Paragraph 6)
D. “U.S. citizens shared Cubans’ concerns about new immigrants. The Great
Depression left many Americans jobless, and many worried immigrants would

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compete for the few jobs that still existed. Anti-Semitism also ran deep in the
U.S.” (Paragraph 10)
E. “So Schroder sailed back to Europe, docking in Belgium, and worked deals with
several countries on the continent. The United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and
the Netherlands all welcomed hundreds of the refugees.” (Paragraph 11)
F. "Using survival statistics for Jews from these European countries during the war,
scholars estimate that, ultimately, 709 of the passengers survived the war, and
227 did not." (Paragraph 12)

3. PART A: Which of the following best describe the character of Captain Schroder of the
St. Louis?
A. He was relentless in his search for a safe haven for Jewish refugees.
B. He was naive in his expectations for how countries would respond to the
refugees.
C. He was understanding of other countries’ hesitancy to take refugees.
D. He was only concerned with completing the journey so he could be paid.

4. PART B: Which quote from the text best supports the answer to Part A?
A. “The journey itself was very pleasant for the passengers, with fancy meals,
activities for young people and some childcare” (Paragraph 4)
B. “On May 27, the St. Louis weighed anchor in Havana, Cuba, where passengers
were denied permission to leave the ship and officially enter Cuba.” (Paragraph
6)
C. “Captain Schroder pressed on to find new homes for all of his passengers.”
(Paragraph 11)
D. “scholars estimate that, ultimately, 709 of the passengers survived the war, and
227 did not.” (Paragraph 12)

5. How do paragraphs 1-2 contribute to the development of ideas in the text?


(Answer in one to two short paragraphs)